21 April, 2014

The Folly of St. Ann's

Between the walk from my apartment to my workplace lies a piece of architecture in front of an NYU dormitory building that strikes my sense of perspective every time I walk past it. I have taken multiple photographs of this remnant of what was once the 12th Street Baptist Church, the Congregation Emanu-el and for over a century, St. Ann's Church. The section that remains of the original 1847 construction without its 1870 French Gothic sanctuary, is a stark sight in front of the 26-story dorm. 

Apart from the odd vacancy of a cross above the nude steel spire, it is the strangeness that I experience when coming around the side of the folly (the architectural term for a freestanding facade) which sends me into a pensive mood. There is nothing really between the dorms and the Citi bike racks off the sidewalk. 

There is the bracing of brick crossing a few stained glass windows from the '20s, boarded up entryways to the inaccessible tower and the most peculiar thing of all, the backside of the front doors which cannot be approached through the black iron fence of the gateway. Behind me, a building attendant behind an NYU decal on the glass door to the dormitory building known as "Founders Hall."

Two other articles have a more thorough write up than I could produce of the history behind the place of worship that did exist here and the story of its demise at Bedford and Bowery & Daytonian in Manhattan. What I would like to highlight from them both though is an affinity with the underdog (The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, former churchgoers, forlorn art appreciators) and a distaste for the outcome at the hands of the multiple parties involved in St. Ann's fate (New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYU, the developer Alan Bell).

Many factors are cited: dwindling outreach and attendance; shifting demographics; debt incurred from multiple parish loans; the tide of progress lapping on the shores of all neighborhoods in Manhattan, especially the Village. Who can say which and in what measure or combination of the above created this particular result, the folly of St. Ann's? It is not so much eerie to me, the observer, or much melancholy or angering. 

My concern I believe is aesthetic, which is also in its own way, moral. My aesthetic experience as I pass this facade every time is as if the sanctuary continued to extend through the dormitory building, all the way back to 11th Street as it once did. This structural impression, the effect of the remnant on the observer creating a disproportionate sense of continuity in regards to the folly, must have escaped the consideration of the developers and their architect that NYU hired entirely - or it wasn't even given a thought, credence or weight.

Both links above include pictures of the church around 1914, when supremely crafted Gothic spire work topped the tower. The cross of symbolic power and its crown of ornament are no longer present. What is present is a memory of something else, of a different school, a religious school. Founders Hall may house current students or future scholars of religious study in an ethnographically or theoretically interested "focus." The place that was St. Ann's provided space for the religious experience to occur for, to, or with a person in the sanctuary. Study became practice, the worship an exercise in scale between immensity and the infinitesimal.

In Catholicism by the taking of communion, the transcendent God becomes accessible through the immanence of the human being. However this is also represented in the architecture of a church itself. The facade and its tower have a verticality that is counterposed by the horizontal stretch of the sanctuary. They meet together (as in the cross) and as this is also true from a point of view of looking down on the floor plan from above, it is just as true from a side view of the chapel. The idea is old: Heaven and earth meet in the house of the Lord. The development and raising up of these structural forms during the medieval period is thoroughly investigated by Otto von Simson in his Bollingen Series book The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, if it is of any interest to the reader.

No Easter confirmations were given after 2003 at St. Ann's Church. The neighborhood is not without its examples from the 19th and 20th centuries when it comes to churches continuing service and even offering organ recitals at midday, such as Grace Church still does only a block away.

The continual recurrence of the experience that the folly of St. Ann's gives me keeps me shooting pictures and contemplating over and again. Sometimes I have to walk/run to work and with my face forward, feet shooting out sidewalk behind them, my attention isn't taken by the folly because I couldn't care less - I'm going to work now, I'll be late, so what? But on the slower walk back home, when these same legs are tired, I cannot help but be a witness to the affront of the folly. Was this really a show of "compromise" in answer to the appeals of the neighborhood? Why leave the vertical without its horizontal, half-disassembling the place's dignity and history?

We see now that purpose is plainly writ in the brick and the steel of any building we encounter. It is a moral and an aesthetic choice - but under the rule of what William Morris called "anarchic plutocracy" the true divinity of the sky is the half-symbol stiffened, straight, lit up and beaming in its sheer and utter verticality. And my God, is it beautiful every time I walk uptown and see the Chrysler Building from afar! Forgoing the Earth for the sky. And so, craning my neck, forgoes I.

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